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How Man’s Best Friend Can Help Ease Dementia Symptoms

Lisa Fields
May 25, 2018

For someone with dementia, a dog can put them at ease, brighten their mood, or help them carry on more coherent conversations.

If your loved one with dementia has always been good with dogs, allow them to spend some time around furry friends now and you may be surprised how good it can be for their well-being.

A growing field of research has shown just how advantageous it is for people with dementia to interact with dogs. Experts agree that there are benefits to participating in animal-assisted therapy programs, as well as spending time with the family pet.

A new study from researchers at Purdue University shows that people with dementia who interacted with dogs in animal-assisted therapy programs were less likely to be aggressive or agitated and more likely to interact socially with others. Many of the participants got more physical activity and ate better when they spent time with dogs than when they didn’t, and their quality of life increased.

“Some of the results show a decrease in verbal behaviors, improvement in depressive symptoms, increase in quality of life, and significant decrease in blood pressure with exposure to dogs,” says study author Nancy Edwards, director of the Adult Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner program at Purdue University’s School of Nursing in West Lafayette, Indiana. “All people, including individuals in any state of dementia, will benefit from interaction with dogs if they do not have a fear of dogs.”

Plenty of other research shows how people can benefit from spending time with dogs. Dog owners tend to have better heart health, lower blood pressure levels, lower stress levels, and less depression than non-owners. While the bulk of this research has been conducted on healthy older adults, people with dementia can glean many of the same benefits.

“Dogs and other companion animals have positive physiological, emotional, and social effects on healthy people, as well as those with physical and/or mental health conditions,” says dementia researcher Ardra Cole, professor at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and founder and chair of the nonprofit ElderDog Canada. “Within the context of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, companion animals become increasingly significant when language as a form of communication is increasingly compromised, when caregivers are pressed by the numerous and varied demands of care – which leaves insufficient time for the kind of presence and companionship provided by animals, and when the need for touch ironically becomes simultaneously more important and more elusive.”

Interactions with a dog can do wonders for people with dementia, brightening their mood or even prompting them to communicate.

“One of the most rewarding things we have seen many times is when a client who has not spoken in days suddenly lights up when they pet the dog and look at us, smile, and start talking to us directly about the dog and their feelings,” says Laurie Barksdale, of Kansas City, Missouri, a volunteer registered dog handler with Pet Partners, a nonprofit that provides animal-therapy programs in facilities across the U.S. “Staff will often tell us they have tried everything to have the client interact with them and nothing works, but when a dog comes in the room, they begin to smile, touch, and sometimes even converse coherently about the visit.”

Some people with dementia may relate to dogs more readily than they relate to their human caregivers.

“Acceptance without judgment is a challenge for a loved one but easy for a dog,” Cole says. “A dog doesn’t care whether a comment makes sense, is based in fact, or is a figment of imagination; nor does a dog care whether he hears the same story over and over and over again.”

Relatives may not have the time to sit for extended periods with a loved one with dementia, but a family pet can be a constant companion.

“Minutes can turn easily into hours of quiet contentment spent stroking, petting, and being in companionship with a dog – contact, comfort, and companionship without expectation to do or talk, only to be,” Cole says. “Being in the moment and experiencing joy in the smallest of things are second-nature to dogs.”

For safety reasons, it may be necessary to supervise some people with dementia when they’re around pets. (Therapy dogs are always supervised by their handlers during animal-assisted therapy programs.)

“Although it is never intended, some individuals can be a little rough with animals – just like children – so they need to be monitored carefully,” Edwards says. “Be careful that the animals can tolerate some noise, quick movements, and perhaps a little rough handling.”

If your loved one owned a dog before their diagnosis, take steps to keep the relationship going.

“There is a difference between visiting with a dog within an animal-assisted therapy program and a family dog with whom there is a prior and continuing connection,” Cole says. “Senior people often refer to their dog as their best friend, their one true companion on whom they can count. When someone is diagnosed with dementia and the journey of loss begins and hits hard, it seems all the more important to honor the special bond a person may have with a dog and make every effort to sustain that relationship as long as possible.”

If you and your loved one don’t have pets at home but you’d like them to enjoy interacting with dogs, seek out an animal therapy program in your area. Pet Partners coordinates visiting therapy programs through residential facilities, day facilities, visiting healthcare worker programs, and doctor’s offices.

“We recommend that family members inquire with the healthcare professionals who are assisting in their loved ones’ care about whether therapy animal visits are available through their facility or practice,” says Elisabeth Van Every, of Bellevue, Washington, the marketing and strategic partnerships coordinator for Pet Partners. “If therapy animal visits aren’t currently offered, the family can work with the facility or practice to get in touch with a therapy animal organization and learn more about starting a program.”

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